Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Call Me Ahab

Here now is my attempt to explain to the legions of readers of this blog what exactly I am doing in this obsessive, some might say downright crazy, “reading experiment” I’ve decided to take on for 2010. Why explain here? To further clarify the matter for myself, mainly, which I have made other attempts to do here and elsewhere, the most recent of which was recently when my wife asked me what the heck I was doing and why. I didn’t do a very good job of articulating it, so I’ll try to do better here, since I am better in this form that I am “on my feet”, as it were.

The idea came to me because I was really wanting to take what I thought of as a kind of literary sabbatical or what is sometimes called a sabbatical year. A sabbatical is broadly defined by Merriam-Webster as “a break or change from a normal routine”. A sabbatical year is further defined as “a leave often with pay [cue LAUGH TRACK]….for rest, travel, or research”. I’ve often thought that if I was a good enough or talented enough writer I would love to spend time in one of those high-falutin writer’s colonies, such as Yaddo or Breadloaf, where they allow you to stay there for free and work exclusively on your writing with a community of other working writers. Many of my favorite writers have done this before. But you have to be invited to such things, and I’m not even able to break into print with my fiction, so this door is closed to me for the present.

It also occurred to me that I started writing fiction seriously in 1990, which is now 20 years ago. Also, I was born in 1970, which is 40 years ago. Both of those things coming upon an even anniversary made it seem like a good time to take some kind of pause or a break from the usual routine and to assess from where I have come and where I am going.

Usually when someone goes on a sabbatical they go off to some other place, a getaway, where they can seclude themselves and get some work done. But I lack both the freedom and the resources to do that. I have a wife and three small kids and my place is with all of them. That’s when it occurred to me – sometime last summer – that if I can’t spend a year in a real place on sabbatical, I could “spend” a year on a kind of literary sabbatical. I could go to a place that doesn’t actually exist, or exists only in books. I could do some kind of year-long project or study, take some notes, see what comes out of it.

Earlier in the summer just by chance I had purchased two copies of used Herman Melville novels, Mardi and Redburn. I also had intended over the last two or three years to re-read one of my all-time favorite books, Moby-Dick, which I have only read once, about ten years ago in 2000. Furthermore, there was a book that came out a few years ago called Melville: His World and His Work by Andrew Delbanco that I also have a copy of and was interested in reading. Somehow I managed to corrall all of those facts into my head at once, and after kicking around the idea of having a “Melvillepalooza” some time in 2008 in which I read a few of his books in a row, but never having delivered on this idea (Duke stole it for his “Four Course Meal of Faulkner” last year!), it suddenly occurred to me that my “sabbatical”, if I took one, could center on the works of Herman Melville.

But what really made the idea stick, for me, was a silly little detail, something that is sort of ridiculous on the surface. But when taken in the context of all the previous thoughts that were running through my head, it seemed like a kind of confirmation of the entire enterprise. That’s the simple fact that I live in Pennsylvania, which is noted, among other things, for being a state in which an inordinate amount of the towns seem to have names that end in the suffix ­–ville. The town I live in is called Breinigsville. Nearby is Schnecksville. There are towns in this state called Millersville, Greensville, Harrisville, Manorsville, Mechanicsville, Pleasantville, Quarryville, Wernersville, Yackville, Elizabethville, and on and on. Thus, I knew the imaginary place I could spend my own literary sabbatical: Melville, Pennsylvania.

This is a serious enterprise. Sure it’s nerdy as hell, and the concept of “going” to a fictional place might be goofy, but I think this can be an important and fruitful study. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. After his first two novels hit with a bang commercially, in 1846 (Typee) and 1847 (Omoo), Melville was continually underappreciated by critics and the public alike, until well after he died. People thought the material in those first two books, which were heavily autobiographical and based on his real experiences in the South Seas, was largely imaginary; when he did follow his own imaginative fancy in his third novel, Mardi, they rejected it as too austere and philosophical. When Moby-Dick came out in 1850, it was a flop. This being the same book which many people and critics regard as the best example of the great American novel.

That’s nothing next to the reaction some of his later work got. Check out the famous critical response in the New York Day Book to Melville’s next novel after Moby-Dick, called Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852): “…it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman …… [We learned that] his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.”

Melville only published one other full-length novel after that, called The Confidence-Man, which Duke has blogged on here. That, too, was not well received. After that, as the story goes, he managed to obtain a job in 1866 in the New York City Customs Department and worked at a desk job for the next twenty years. He died in financial distress and in personal and moral alienation. The unfinished manuscript he left behind after his death in 1891, Billy-Budd, Sailor, was not published until the 1920s. But when it was, it triggered a full Melville revival, which in some ways has not ended.

Though I’m not favorably comparing myself to Melville, there’s a lot of his story that I can relate to – financial duress, years of labor in writing, the struggle to be read or appreciated, the sense that the writing one does is for no positive gain, etc. In many ways Melville serves as kind of a patron saint for struggling American writers. Yet having said all that, I don’t know anybody personally, other than my brother, that actually still reads this man’s work. His novels are large; they go on and on about anything and everything; they don’t move easily or briskly, even though many of them have pretty crackling adventure stories. I honestly do not know how he even had the stamina to write as much as he did and in such exhaustive detail, particularly about life at sea, as he does in his first several novels, some of which I am still planning to get to this year, such as Redburn, White-Jacket and Billy Budd.

For my money, not only is Moby-Dick the greatest American novel, but it is also the greatest fictional study in literary history of mankind’s struggle against evil. It also delivers the most bang for the buck I’ve ever come across as far as having a satisfying and appropriate ending. The final showdown between Captain Ahab and the White Whale, and the end result, is for me one of the greatest conclusions ever written to a novel, if not the greatest. It justifies every moment of the exhausitve, 900-page slog you have to endure to get there. Reading that novel is to immerse yourself completely in the life and times of the men on the Pequod. Then, with some time, you come to appreciate the astounding volume and complexity of the themes his story dabbles in: death, sanity, obsession, romanticism, religion, God vs. Man, natural history, environmental concerns, Quakerism, racism, etc. It’s all there.

Everyone knows who Captain Ahab was; everyone knows what it means to say a person has a “white whale” (i.e., an obsession); everyone has heard the world-famous opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”. All of these point towards the greatness of Herman Melville’s novel.

I think there will be many riches to discover throughout his work. I don’t mind taking my time and pressing through all of the long novels he wrote that I can get my hands on. And not all of his stories are about hunting whales. Typee and Omoo were adventure stories, but they were more about life on Polyponesian Islands in the South Pacific than about life at sea. The Confidence-Man is about a large group of hucksters and salesmen together on a river-boat voyage in middle America. Israel Potter is a historical novel about a soldier during the American Revolution. Clarel, an epic poem, is a book-length work about his travels in the Holy Land. His world famous short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street” and also brings one of his most famous lines in Bartleby's enigmatic and often-repeated statement, "I would prefer not to". Another famous short fiction work by Melville called “The Bell Tower” was the first short story ever to feature what amounted to a depiction of a robot! So you can see that there’s a lot more to Melville than just whales and obsessive Captains.

I think the bottom line is that I want to read and understand all of the work I can get my hands on by this man because he is one of the great American writers to ever contribute to our country’s canon and because I have my own leviathan, my own white whale, which is to become a successful fiction writer. It eludes me as much as Moby-Dick eluded Ahab, and I want to continue after it with Ahab-like perseverance. I want to do what it takes to track my own “whale” down. I want to follow in the great tradition of Melville and others like him, who emptied everything they had to give in the service of their craft.

If Melville had been a quitter and a true failure, he would have given up long before writing Moby-Dick, or while he was writing Moby-Dick, or after that. But he wasn’t. He was a courageous man and a great writer. And his work serves as an immovable and indestructible legacy to his God-given creativity and determination. That’s the instructor whose class I want to take. So I’m pitching my tent in Melville, Pennsylvania.

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